Tuesday, 1 January 2008

The Hazards Of Post-Feminism Going Awry

Well, I hope 2008 is going well for you. Having paid a visit to the local accident and emergency department of my local hospital this morning (my flatmate had headaches and limb paralysis which seemed like getting worse; fortunately the diagnosis was stress rather than concussion after to a bang on the head earlier this week - cooker hoods are a nightmare if you are over 5'8" (1.70m)) I have found many of the town's residents with food injuries and gashes from tripping over on the way home from celebrations, they were still processing the 02.00 intake at 08.00 and the security guards were rushed off their feet dealing with violent patients, one of the guards is starting 2008 with a broken arm courtesy of one of the patients. So, in terms of Britain's binge-drinking culture and its consequences, the local report is 'no change'. I do hope for improvement in life in the UK and across the World. There are loads of things that could be done simply in the UK to make life better. We could start with just taking a more relaxed attitude. Anger at the moment causes so many problems: car crashes, injuries, stress (especially for retail sector workers), if everyone just slowed down a bit and did not feel they had to keep on asserting themselves at every occasion, especially when driving, then the life of the UK would improve immediately (and the hospitals could deal with real illness not the self-inflicted kind) and traffic would flow better if you were not having to slow up every 10 minutes to get past another 'shunt' caused by impatience and anger. Sorry, I am beginning to sound like the Archbishop of Canterbury and his new year message.

My posting today might seem an odd one to start off with. I find the break from work gives me lots of time to think and finally seeming to have shaken off the writing block I have been suffering I have been working on fiction and hopefully sometime by the Spring will be able to post my latest steampunk story. Having just watched 'The Rocketeer' (1991) which is kind of post-steampunk but similar anachronistic invention story (and 'The Shadow in the North' a TV dramatisation of a Philip Pullman novel set in the 1880s and featuring a train-mounted, steam-powered [literally the steam pushing out the bullets] machine gun for policing Russia), I suppose you could term it 'bakelitepunk' (after the brown early plastic of the 1930s used for radios and other high-tech items of the era), I feel quite inspired. However, the break also leaves me time to think about other issues that interest me, such as UK society. It was also partly inspired by the hospital visit and the fact that the A&E (Accident & Emergency; formerly Casualty) department was filled with people who seem to embody many of the problems I see with the gender balance in the UK today.

I have written before about how men feel ourselves to be pretty obsolete in the present day, with an ever greater emphasis on communication, group work and language skills that women excel in rather than more assertive, active skills of the past that men tend to be stronger at (whilst acknowledging many individuals go against any supposed tendencies of their gender). I have also commented on the over-feminisation of girls and in turn of women, with the 'princess obsession' so prevalent in the UK, pushed hard by the retail sector. Today I am going to look at what I see, and I emphasise this is a personal view, as at the heart of many of some current social problems. One is increased aggressiveness predominantly by men and the sense that you cannot be a 'real man' unless you drive a big car very fast, and swear and punch anyone else (whether male or female) who dares slur (or you feel slurs) your reputation. The other is the converse increased submissiveness of women, the emphasis on feminine styles but also what is perceived as feminine behaviour drawing on attitudes of the past (the irony here is people point back to the 1950s and also to the Jane Austen era of the 1820s and of course in both times, despite the possibly more feminine garb, in fact at the time a lot of women worked hard, in tough circumstances and would perceive many of their counterparts of the 2000s as failing womankind).

As is commonly known feminism grew out of the late 1960s movements for greater equality such as in terms of race. It increased in influence in the 1970s, leading in the UK, and other industrialised countries to gender equality legislation aimed at evening out the pay discrepancy and the restriction on opportunities for women. A lot has been achieved in the UK but we are still not fully there yet: women still are likely to earn less than their male counterparts and are often under-represented in many professions (though we now produce 12% more female law graduates than male ones each year, there are still very few female judges and women are heavily under-represented among members of parliament). Feminism is less visible as a movement now, though women's groups remain, there has been a tendency to move to 'post-feminism'. To some extent post-feminism grew from women who found much of the feminist movement to be a little too 'raw' even ironically too masculine for them and they wished to recapture some of the aspects of femininity; the stereotype was wearing a dress rather than a pair of dungarees. Many also, wrongly felt that feminism predicated against heterosexual relationships. It is true than in the 1970s and even today some strong feminists felt that fraternising with men was fraternising with the 'enemy'. Of course parallel to the feminist movement was the movement for gay rights (and of course 'homosexual' does not come from 'love of men' in that form of 'homo' as in homo sapiens, it comes from the same root as homogenous, in other words it means 'love of the same', and so is contrasted with heterosexual in the way homogenous and heterogenous are contrasted - sorry, a grammar point that irritates me when people get it wrong, I am being very pedantic at present) and lesbians have straddled the two strands confusing the perceptions of the two movements in the minds of many people.

I first encountered post-feminism in the late 1980s when on a college course. Women were in the large majority in English literature courses at the institution and the bulk of them came from well-off middle class homes in the South of England. Their tutors were of the woman's movement generation and so their take on literature was informed by that. They thought such an approach would excite their students and had a rude awakening when the students went on strike demanding an end to the 'Marxist feminist' attitudes that they felt were being peddled to them and wanted a return to 'the proper study of literature'. (Of course being the 1980s with Thatcherism very strong anything which was more liberal than Margaret Thatcher's New Right attitudes was seen as 'Marxist'). This was women bringing the attitudes back to what they saw as proper position and outlook for women. A couple of years later I was startled when on a holiday with friends that I had to fight with the two women present to be allowed along with a male friend to cook for the group. The two women who were in their 20s and self-employed seemed to feel it was improper for a man to cook when women were present. I felt as if I had gone into some time warp, but in fact I was arriving in post-feminist Britain. It did not need men to undermine feminism, women were happy to do it for themselves. The mistake being made is that to put on a dress, wear make-up, enjoy weepy movies, or whatever does not mean having to give up your rights to be treated equally. Somehow many ordinary women seem to feel that to have one it is compulsory to have both. I can accept the feminist line that dresses and make-up can be seen as the trappings of submissiveness anyway (and I accept that some women, like some men enjoy being submissive in a sexual way, but that typically is based on consent with someone who will dominate, with get out clauses and there are equally very dominant women in that context), but then surely it is up to the woman wearing the dress and make-up not to let herself be perceived as automatically subscribing to a servile role.

Part of the problem was that this rather twisted post-feminism was twisted further by the British political scene. All regimes face a challenge, many like the Nazis and Italian Fascists, seek to put women into a subservient, in particular baby-producing role; infamously the Nazis referred to the 'three Ks' for German women: Kinder, Kirche, Kuche (i.e. children, church, kitchen) and yet these regimes always really needed female workers. As we know women increasingly provide more of the workforce than men, especially in an information-focused, service-sector and unskilled workplace. Both the Thatcher and the Blair regimes suffered the same dichotomy. As I have noted before, Blair's outlook was terribly wrapped up in the views of the authoritarian Vichy regime of France and its emphasis on 'family, work, nation'. Like Thatcher he wanted mothers to get out and work (at low wages predominantly) yet he also wanted (partly due to the Catholic influence on his policies) them to have more children. Thus the emphasis was on fewer single-parent families and more two-parent families, which it was somehow assumed would permit child care (which is often too expensive to be in the reach of the average mother) and so allow the mothers to work rather than be dependent on the state (which was a standard assumption from the Thatcher years that all single mothers were on state benefits whereas despite the high teenage birthrate in the UK the majority were divorced middle class women). More maternity and paternity leave was granted (and I am not saying that is at all a bad thing) but with all this came the assumption that women should be tied up with men and by implication put up with any bad behaviour from the men (who, as I will outline below, are actually failing far more than ever to grow up to be decent husbands and fathers). I remember a single-mother journalist writing that when she had been unemployed in the 1990s almost being told this explicitly by the job centre staff she spoke to.

The 1990s did see the burgeoning of 'chick lit' which did seem to straddle being feminine without giving up equality and the ability to assert oneself. If you look at 'Bridget Jones's Diary' by Helen Fielding (1996; based on a newspaper column from 1995), probably the bestselling example in the UK, you do see a woman looking for romance, but not at any cost. She dumps the men who mistreat her and even her 'hero' she remains sceptical of. She has her own circle of friends not dependent on a man and she has a career and ambitions to advance it. She strives for a mature relationship with her parents. None of this stops her liking romantic things and being vulnerable at times, to be that is not to give up all the strong points of her life. All of us are weak and vulnerable at times, it is not a monopoly of women, and if we try to pretend that we are not those things periodically then we are denying our humanity. Of course what makes this interesting is that 'Bridget Jones's Diary' was an unashamed 'remake' of 'Pride and Prejudice' by Jane Austen (1813) who is the goddess of the post-feminist movement, even though many of her heroines would kick the average post-feminist in 2008 up the bum and tell them to be stronger and go out there and get what they want, however constrained by society they might feel.

So, where has this twisted form of post-feminism left us? Increasingly women feel they need to be passive, even submissive to men, to be perceived properly in society. They lap up the consumer products which simply reinforce this, hence the shift to everything in pink which is the one female colour par excellence (too little purple which was the feminist colour). Fashions that sexualise women have been common but these days they are combined with logos which push the woman wearing them in the role of almost being perceived as a prostitute. A female friend of mine says she shudders when she sees women wearing the local 'Criminal' (a UK designer brand, I believe) across the backs of their jeans. Hair is long, earrings are huge, jeans are tight, skirts very short (this brings me back to the women in A&E this morning). The attempt to combine female sexualisation with some female emancipation came in the short-lived form of 'girl power' especially fostered by The Spice Girls in the 1990s; look at the current counterparts, The Sugarbabes (though they manage a little female empowerment at times), The Pussycat Dolls (just look at the name) and despite their name, Girls Aloud (of course, they are actually women). It might seem bizarre but The Spice Girls reuniting might actually be good for young women in Britain, at least each member had an identity (however manufactured) and they were not simply replicas of each other, all offering themselves up sexually. So the twisted post-feminism has put women back in a position of effectively sexual servants. I know this is occurring all across the Western world, but in Britain, where it is unrestrained by the religion of the USA and the common sense and maturity of the Netherlands, it is having the most severe effect. Girls rush to dress like their mothers and elder sisters with no time to explore different aspects of being female only that of a sexual 'product' (note all the adverts for 'make-over' kits of girls which are terribly unnerving). I know that teenage pregnancies in the UK are slowly falling, but we still have the highest level in Europe and I imagine the fall will bottom out or reverse if society continues to emphasise that a woman is only to be (I was going to say 'respected' but in fact it is really the reverse) seen as legitimate if she is sexually appealing (within the mainstream definition which is incredibly narrow) and making babies. Of course there is nothing wrong with being sexually appealing when you are an adult, or in having babies, it is just when society makes that the only seemingly acceptable option or excludes you.

So, the twisting of post-feminism has done a lot of damage to the status of (young) women in UK society and provides an excuse for those who still wish to discriminate against them in the workplace and use sexual politics to manipulate them (rape convictions and successful sexual harassment cases still remain the exception rather than commonplace). I will argue it has also damaged the role of men in society. It is easy to blame rap culture for a lot of this, but for the average teenage boy this is one of the two prime sources of his information about aspirations and also, importantly, how to behave in society (for pre-pubescent boys there is WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) full of over-muscled men simulating violence (which to many of the boys looks real), shouting, being aggressive and surrounded by nubile women who often they fight over; this is barbarism made entertainment and packaged for 11 year olds). The second place is the internet. My mother who grew up in the 1940s said that the way young men and women found out what to do in a relationship was by watching movies. They saw how couples kissed and held each other and would often replicate it, literally right there in the cinema or otherwise later. Of course the limited portrayals of the era meant that there were a lot of unanswered questions especially once you have got beyond the kissing and cuddling. However, importantly it also showed 'sexual' manners, how to treat a woman properly. Men who were violent to women in movies always came off badly and did not 'get the girl' ultimately.

When I was a teenager in the 1980s access to pornography was pretty difficult and usually amounted to stuff found round the back of the newsagents or filched from fathers or older brothers. Nowadays not only every time you log on to your email account are you being offered up the stuff it is so easy to find free pornographic videos in seconds. I am staggered by how much stuff is out there. In addition, its spread is immense. When I was a teenager, you saw generally soft porn of a woman posing naked, occasionally playing with herself. However, on the internet you can see women of all kinds performing the widest range of acts available and things like sado-masochism seem normal. It is interesting to note that recently 'The Guardian' reported that many young women dislike the fact that their boyfriends ejaculate in their faces without asking permission yet they feel they are not in a position to protest as it is seen as 'normal'. That is because online pornography shows pornographic sex which is not about the participants as sex should be, it is about the audience. I imagine very few women like being ejaculated on their faces, but of course someone watching a pornographic video wants to see the so-called 'money shot' to prove the sex is 'real'. It is as if I sit down and watch 'Die Hard 4.0' or 'Bullitt' or 'The French Connection' and then go out and drive that way because I think that driving full speed through a city crashing into cars is the 'normal' way to drive. Crucially, due to the post-feminism, these young women are doing nothing to contest their boyfriends' behaviour or seemingly even discuss sex in a mature way. They have been given a submissive role by society and feel obliged to stick to it, however much they might protest about the consequences to other women.

So sexual knowledge for men (less so for young women who tend to read more and so probably get a wider experience from novels) comes from apeing a performance rather than actuality or any authentic portrayal (no movie I know shows the farts, burps, itchy skin, sudden cramp, need to urinate, difficulty getting on condom, etc. that normal sex involves). They are given the green light to use this performance sex on women by, in particular, music videos which generally show women in a half-dressed state shaking their bodies around provocatively whilst the man strides around boasting how he is better than everyone else, is so rich, has a big car and so on. The women fall into his lap, never contest his right to use their bodies and so on. Now, female artists do often portray a stronger role for women in their videos even if dressed in stunning outfits that make them look incredibly sexy; notably Beyonce and Christine Aguillera among others have done songs contesting violence towards women and Jennifer Lopez has appeared in a movie on the theme. Interestingly, though they do not contest sexual submissiveness, (I am hoping that Pink will release 'Don't Cum In My Face Without Asking' in 2008; 'U + Ur Hand' came close in 2007). For some reason these individual songs do not penetrate so strongly as the 'lifestyle' videos of male performers.

The twisted post-feminism, however, does not only cause problems in the sexual intercourse sphere but also in other aspects of men's lives. To complement submissive women, men increasingly feel that they have to be aggressive. This is no way going back to the Jane Austen era, when at a time when life could be lost easily, manners and respect reined in male aggression, but to some far more primitive time and even then I doubt the average caveman sought out someone to beat up in a car park on Friday night as he knew he had to be in a fit state to get up and hunt the next morning and an injury could kill him; plus alcohol had not been invented. I see fathers with sons at primary school (pre-11 years old) actively encouraging them to be aggressive in their toys even in their play. I accept that boys need to be tough, we all do in the modern world, but we now have aggression for aggression's sake, not to defend your family or your land or your life, but because somehow if you are not angry and aggressive you are somehow not male. Just as for girls, to be seen these days as not feminine, even not a princess (with all the traits of demanding things and service not simply being feminine) is the worst accusation for boys it is even worse to be seen as not being a man. Hence we have rising numbers of boys carrying knives and stabbing people. I live in a suburban area and we have a stabbing every fortnight and someone being kicked to death or into hospital once per month; other parts of the UK have many more and have shootings too, increasingly of school-aged boys. Fatherhood in itself is becoming perverted into ensuring that your son can kick to pieces anyone he fancies taking on and that your daughter will be standing on the sidelines applauding ready to offer herself sexually to the victor. The battle is everywhere, fighting to get at the front of the queue and in particular driving to push everyone off the road to assert your identity as a man.

This is not masculinity, this is barbarism. Look at less developed societies. You do not see tribespeople in the Amazon basin kicking each other to death or stabbing each other just because one has run in front of the other. They know what life costs and that violence and aggression have their place and that we have to draw limits or otherwise their society collapses. Back in the 1990s I heard Eric Hobsbawm speak on 'Barbarism: A Users' Guide' and he spoke about the problems of Yugoslavia breaking up. It was a developed country which had firearms around but also a framework of norms about how one behaved with them and how you treated your neighbours and how men treated women too. Then the war began and rather than adhering to common decency all the brakes came off and the situation was far more dangerous than in less developed societies. You ended up with the mass raping, the death camps, the snipers firing at market queues. This is where a society which has fallen back to the survival of the fittest; male strong-female submissive culture. Unless in the UK we can address this unhealthy imbalance between men and women which is triggering off so many other unpleasant consequences, and see that men and women are different, but neither side should be forced, cajoled, bribed, bullied, bought off into filling that assigned role to the utmost, then there is nothing to stop even worse things happening.


MCG said...

Intrigued to read your "Grey Commission" story. I used to put out a little steampunk fiction magazine until a combo of approaching (well, careering headlong towards) 40 and general lethargy put paid to it. Have a peek here if you want to see what it was like.

Rooksmoor said...

Well, I have passed 40 and actually find I have more time for writing than before. There are so many outlets than a decade ago, even if you do not want to have your own blog there are lots of websites which take fiction. There are Yahoo groups which are like writers' groups but online rather than face-to-face, giving critiques for your work.